BMW gets back into the coupe business in a big way
By ROGER HART/AutoWeek
WHEN BMW UNVEILED its new 6 Series coupe at the Frankfurt show in September, those seeing the car for the first time nearly all said the same thing.
“Well, it doesn’t look as bad as the 7 Series.”Faint praise, to be sure.
But not a surprising comment considering the torrent of criticism the company’s flagship sedan received following its introduction last year. The biggest complaint was the 7’s bulbous rear end.
On the 6 Series, the rear end is pronounced, but less so than on the 7 Series, and in reality, the 6 has an overall pleasing coupe shape that drew attention from onlookers just about every place we went during our first drive in southern Spain.
In fact, two Spaniards went out of their way to turn their dilapidated Toyota delivery van around on a tight two-lane when they spotted our 645Ci parked for a photo at a mountain road overlook. Piling out of the van, they slowly walked around the car and then after a few minutes of inspection, one said, “Muy rapido.” A statement, not a question. Even sitting still, the car looks fast, conversing in a universal language.
“Si,” we said. “Muy rapido.” We all smiled knowingly.
“You must remember, at the end of the day BMW is a performance engineering company,” said BMW design director Chris Bangle, giving several American journalists a walk-around of the car. “The rear end of this car looks this way because it has to look this way. When this car was in the wind tunnel, when we were doing the final dimensions, we’re talking mere millimeters difference,” he said, running his hands along the top of the raised lip of the decklid. “This is a question of geometry. You can’t take the rear end down any lower without losing performance.
“And with this shape, you can fit two standard-size golf bags and a large suitcase, enough for two people for a long weekend,” Bangle added. “Form follows function.”
For the record, the new 6 exterior was penned by Adrian Van Hooydonk, who now heads up BMW’s Designworks USA in California. “I think Adrian did a great job on this,” Bangle said.
The new 6 is based on the Z9GT concept that debuted at the Tokyo show four years ago, and it joins a long list of big, fast BMW coupes, dating back to the 1930s. The last 6 Series coupe was built in 1989, giving way to the more luxury-oriented 8 Series in the 1990s.
BMW’s move to once again build a sportier luxury coupe should come as no surprise, as new models from Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, Ferrari and Lexus are already on the market. While BMW would not give any specific sales goals, it did admit it expects to sell more cars than the last 6 Series (86,000 units sold between 1976 and 1989) and many more than the 8 Series (31,000 units between 1990 and 1999). Both the coupe and a convertible (to be unveiled at Detroit in January) will hit the U.S. market simultaneously some time around March.
While the skin of the 6 is all-new, almost everything else is from the BMW parts bin, which, as we know, is pretty good stuff.
Beneath the bulging aluminum hood—BMW officials like calling it a “powerdome”—lies the same 4.4-liter V8 found in the 745i and the 545i. The engine produces 325 hp at 6100 rpm and 330 lb-ft at 3600 rpm, and features variable adjustment of valve timing, valve lift and the length of the intake manifold to aid performance.
Customers will have three transmission choices: a six-speed automatic with Steptronic, a six-speed manual or a six-speed sequential manual gearbox. BMW officials expect about 75 percent of 6 Series ordered for the United States will be fitted with the automatic.
We were able to sample all three choices on our drive in Spain and while our first pick would be the manual, we liked all three. The SMG-equipped car was the best example from BMW we’ve tried, benefiting from all the development work done for the unit on the 3 Series and 5 Series. For pure sportiness, the SMG car, using steering wheel-mounted paddles, is hard to beat, but it’s still not as smooth in around-town driving as is the standard manual gearbox. And if you want to drive it mostly in automatic mode, you’re much better off with the automatic.
You’ll suffer only a slight performance loss with the automatic; BMW says the 0-to-60-mph run with both manual gearbox-equipped cars is 5.5 seconds while the automatic needs two-tenths more. All three cars are electronically limited to a top speed of 155 mph. Fuel mileage is slightly better with the automatic: It is rated at 18/26 mpg city/highway while the manual gets 17/25 and the SMG 17/24.
BMW went to great lengths to keep the weight of the 6 in line with a sports coupe, using aluminum components in as many places as possible. The chassis is aluminum, as is much of the suspension system, hood and door panels. The front fenders and trunk lid are sheet molding compound thermoplastic. The use of all this weight-saving stuff paid off: The manual-transmission model weighs 3781 pounds, with the SMG and automatic adding just 11 pounds. Weight distribution is the typical BMW 50/50.
In its effort to keep the car’s weight in check, BMW opted to build the 6 Series coupe with a B-pillar, saying a pillar-less design would have required a beefier chassis, adding weight. “We’ll save that look for the convertible,” Bangle said.
The design direction BMW has taken with the 7, 5 and now the 6 may be subjective, but the driving dynamics of these cars are above reproach.
While the 645Ci is nearly the same overall length as the 5 Series (190.2 inches to the 5’s 190.6), the 6’s wheelbase of 108.4 inches is less than the 5’s 113.7 inches, giving the car a bit more nimble feel. The 6 is equipped with BMW’s Active Roll Stabilization first introduced on the 7 Series, and it has an active steering system that debuted on the 5. The car was a delight to whip through tight, twisty corners. We were tempted to turn a series of construction barrels along a Spanish highway into an auto-cross course, just for fun.
At slow speed, active steering makes it easier to park, as little inputs into the steering wheel make big inputs into turning the wheels. At higher speeds, the system’s gear ratio gets numerically lower for a better feel. Plus, the system can correct for too much steering input to keep the car from spinning out in a panic situation where you’ve countersteered too much. We found the system a bit heavily weighted at slow speeds, and when pushing the car through some tight turns, you can feel the steering weight change as the electronics do their thing. It doesn’t feel bad, just different. At speed, the wheel does have a good on-center feel.
The ARS chassis and suspension control system keep the car nearly flat through the corners, with just enough roll left dialed in to let you know the car is cornering.
ARS allows for the springs and dampers to be set for a comfortable ride, with the system’s hydraulically operated antiroll bars front and rear stabilizing things when needed.
Standard tires are 245/45R-18 V-rated run-flat all-seasons mounted on cast-alloy wheels. A sport package option adds W-rated run-flat performance tires, 245/40R-19s in front with 275/35R-19s in the back, along with special alloy wheels. Ventilated disc brakes all around with 13.7-inch rotors in front, 13.6 in back, plus ABS and dynamic brake control are standard. So is the eighth-generation dynamic stability control.
Adaptive headlights, swiveling in concert with the car’s steering angle, yaw rate and speed, are options, as is a head-up display for speed, navigation instructions and information about the car’s system controls. A standard eight-speaker audio system uses the car’s sills to improve the bass resonance; a 13-speaker system is optional.
The 2+2 seating allows ample legroom for the front-seat passengers while the rear-seat legroom is not quite so generous.
Behind the standard BMW three-spoke steering wheel is the instrument cluster with large round gauges—white-on-black—for the tach and speedometer, with smaller insets for fuel and oil pressure gauges. Between the round dials is a digital readout for the active cruise control, gear selection and odometers.
The center stack is topped with the infamous iDrive screen, in full living color. The iDrive selector is on the center console between the front seats, and if you, like many others, think iDrive should go away, well, forget it.
“Yes, iDrive is here to stay,” said BMW chairman Helmut Panke. “People need to get used to this technology. And when they’re instructed on its use, they learn to like it. Actually, I don’t think we’ve done a very good job in instructing our customers how to use this,” he added. “Not from the company and not from the dealerships.”
This second-generation iDrive features an escape button of sorts. If you get too deep into the layers of the system and can’t figure your way back out, there is a menu button next to the iDrive control. Pushing it gets you back to the beginning.
“People told us they wanted this,” Panke said. “Then they can start over.” We found the menu button to be a nice addition, but still find iDrive too cumbersome. Maybe once you own the vehicle and use the system daily you will get comfortable with it, but we didn’t have any teenagers along to help sort it all out, so we mainly just left it alone.
But we would still want this car in our garage, iDrive or not. The 6 looks good in a subtle, yet aggressive way, and it drives even better than it looks. The cabin is comfortable and quiet (we noticed only a hint of wind noise creeping into the cabin as we approached triple-digit speeds), and features like ARS and active steering make the car exceedingly easy to drive at speed.
The 6 Series will be priced close to a base 7, with the convertible costing a bit more. And we can start dreaming about the M version, which shouldn’t be too far down the road.
Muy rapido indeed.
2004 BMW 645Ci
# ON SALE: March
# BASE PRICE: $70,000 (est.)
# POWERTRAIN: 4.4-liter, 325-hp, 330-lb-ft V8; rwd, six-speed manual
# CURB WEIGHT: 3781 pounds
# 0-60 MPH: 5.5 seconds (mfr.)